Both in Alaska and across the nation, high-school sports have changed over the last decade ago, with a new focus on preventing injuries -- including one which can devastate a baseball player’s career.
It’s 60.5 feet from the pitcher’s mound to home plate -- and these days, pitches thrown by high-school students are crossing that distance faster and more powerfully than ever before. It's a testament to the modern-day athlete, but many medical professionals say that can be a problem for the pitcher’s future if it's not managed correctly.
Many say Major League Baseball is seeing an epidemic when it comes to a particular injury this year. Damage to the ulnar collateral ligament -- the ligament that stabilizes the elbow's range of motion -- can be linked all the way back to professional pitchers days' in high school. Now there's an even bigger focus on athletes’ safety.
Here in Alaska, more than 300 high-schoolers participate in America's pastime. Unmatched velocity and power separate this generation of pitchers from those who have come before, but that power still needs control.
“We have poor mechanics, too many pitches from a young age, and we have increased velocity,” said Anchorage Bucs trainer Lynne Young.
The 2014 major-league season is on pace to set a record for the number of pitchers who have been forced to have season-ending surgery.
“It is alarming -- surprising, actually,” said Juneau Post 25 Head Coach Andy Macaulay. “Because for as much conditioning and training they put on that level, to see that many injuries is surprising.”
The Alaska Baseball League has also seen a rise in UCL injuries. Young says the league is now up to at least two pitchers a year whose injuries force them to have their UCLs reconstructed in Tommy John surgery -- named after the first pitcher to undergo it in 1974, who went on to win more than 280 games.
Excessive stress put on the ligament can cause it to fatigue or tear. During Tommy John surgery, the UCL is replaced with a tendon from a different part of the body.
“The success rate is really good -- probably an 85 to 95 percent rate,” Young said.
During the high school season, Alaska follows the National High School Federation's rules, which limit pitchers based on innings instead of the number of pitches.
“If you adhere to these preventive measures, we can hopefully decrease the need for Tommy John (surgery),” Young said.
“I think it's the best way to do it,” said Chugiak High School’s head coach, Douglas Henie. “Limiting pitches -- I think that's way too much micromanaging, and it's up to the head coach to manage his pitches so they're not overthrowing.”
Other coaches, like Macaulay, prefer the pitch-count approach.
“You can have one kid that throws five innings and throws 110 pitches, and another game he can throw five innings and he can throw 60 pitches if he's very effective,” Macaulay said. “Pretty much all of our coaches back in Juneau adopted to that pitch-count philosophy, and have seen some pretty positive results in developing pitchers.”
Everyone involved says their goal is to ensure high-school pitchers get results on the baseball diamond – safely, and in a way that can keep the future within striking distance.
In a first step toward preventing UCL injuries, two Major League Baseball teams have biomechanical pitching analysis coaches, whose job it is to correct and mitigate wear and tear on pitchers’ elbows.
The following guidelines are drawn from the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons, Little League Baseball, the Professional Baseball Athletic Trainers Society and Contemporary Pediatrics:
Maximum pitches per game, by age:
7-8: 50 per day
9-10: 75 per day
11-12: 85 per day
13-16: 95 per day
17-18: 105 per day
Rest regulation for pitchers ages 14 and under:
66 or more pitches per game: 4 calendar days
51-65 pitches per game: 3 calendar days
36-50 pitches per game: 2 calendar days
21-35 pitches per game: 1 calendar day
1-20 pitches per game: 0 calendar days
Rest regulation for pitchers ages 15 to 18:
75 or more pitches per game: 4 calendar days
61-75 pitches per game: 3 calendar days
46-60 pitches per game: 2 calendar days
31-45 pitches per game: 1 calendar day
1-30 pitches per game: 0 calendar days
Recommended ages of use for pitches:
Fastball, age 8
Change-up, age 10
Curveball, age 14
Knuckle ball, age 15
Slider, age 16
Screwball, age 17
Additional prevention recommendations to decrease injury risk:
Learn and practice proper techniques and mechanics
Warm-up properly before all practices and games (warm up to throw, DO NOT throw to warm up)
Do NOT pitch through pain
Do NOT pitch through fatigue
Avoid playing on multiple teams during a single season
Take at least 3 consecutive months off from pitching each year
Avoid other overhead sports during baseball season
Rotate other positions
Adhere to pitching guidelines
Speak with a sports medicine professional if you have any concerns about baseball injury or injury prevention strategies